Hands-On Learning – A Knifemaking Course!

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

I’m an obsessive planner – before taking any trip I will literally spend hours in the evenings researching every option/activity that might possibly be of interest to us. Way more than we could ever do! Often, this is massive overkill and it would have been just as effective to rock up, have a quick look around at the options and pick the best one for us. But just sometimes, it pays dividends. This was definitely the case with an excellent little knifemaking course I found in the small village of Barrytown with its population of 225! I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have just happened upon this on our travels, but as soon as I saw it online, I knew it would be a huge hit with the Beans.

The moment I floated the idea with them, Bean8 was hopping from one foot to the other in state of sheer excitement, showering me with a million questions that I couldn’t possibly hope to answer. For the boy who asked Father Christmas for “some metal melting equipment for the garden” (seriously!) this year for Christmas, a knife making course was his idea of heaven! On that front, we have had some corkers from Bean8 on his Christmas list – my absolute favourite was from when he was 6 and asked very sincerely whether I thought Father Christmas would be able to get him a bronze statue of Winston Churchill sitting on a bench and smoking a cigar! Two days before Christmas….!

With everything crossed, I sent a message to the guys at Barrytown asking whether there was an age limit for doing the course. There was, it was 10… At this point, I have to admit that I did toy with the idea of just pretending they were both 10 – Bean8 is so tall that he’d easily pass for a 10-year old. But I hate lying, so I opted for honesty, praying that they’d be kind and let us do it. I needn’t have worried. What I hadn’t factored in was the incredible laid back and relaxed nature of nearly all New Zealanders we met – a lovely trait that we could all learn a lot from. She immediately sent back a message to say that it wasn’t a problem at all as long as we did it with them and helped with the trickier aspects. Perfect, a pragmatic response – I booked us on immediately. On a side note, can you imagine this happening in the UK? Not a chance in a million, there’d be way too many rules and regulations for that!

For months before we set off on our adventures, the knifemaking course was all Bean8 talked about. It was the one thing he was desperate to do. However, we nearly didn’t make it…

…a couple of nights before, we were staying in Franz Josef on the west coast of NZ, just three hours south of Barrytown. Our plan was to get up, head on up to a nearby campsite and settle in ready for our course the following day. What we didn’t factor in was the unpredictable and sometimes extreme weather conditions in New Zealand. Our last night in Franz Josef was fairly broken as we were hit by a terrible storm with thunder and lightning right overhead and rain the like of which I’ve never heard before. The next day though, the weather had completely cleared and it was a bright sunny morning.

Happily, I headed to reception to check out only to be met with somewhat surprising news – the storm had caused a massive landslide of trees, rocks and soil covering almost half a kilometre of State Highway 6, the main and only road up the west coast of New Zealand. We were stuck just south of the landslide and as their transport agency helpfully pointed out, there was no other alternative route! It was Friday, our course started at 9am the following day and the next update on the road was Monday lunchtime…

The only way for us to get up north in time would be to drive all the way around, so back south the way we’d come over the last week, across the Southern Alps and down to Wanaka, east to pick up the road through the centre of the country all the way north, to finally cross back over the Southern Alps again at Arthur’s Pass in the north of the island. 950 km, 11.5 hours of driving and it was already 9:30am. Any sane person would probably just have cancelled the knife making course. But we knew just how much it meant to Bean8. So, we did it. It was a crazy decision but somehow it was OK.

MrJ and I took it in turns to do 2.5-hour stints, pulled over, quickly swapped and started again. Toileting was done on route thanks to the camper and goodness knows how, but I even managed to make them lunch, whilst clinging on to the various components with my hands and even feet as we twisted around sharp corners. The kids listened to what felt like a lifetime of audiobooks and because of their desire to get to the course, didn’t moan once. We stopped only to fill up with fuel and for 20 minutes to buy a fish and chip dinner (sadly I subsequently lost half my chips on a particularly sharp bend!). But on the positive side, the day was bright and sunny, and the scenery was out of this world. Just so incredibly and breathtakingly beautiful. Honestly, I really can’t describe in words the awesome magnificence of this country. Everywhere you look is another picture postcard shot. And we even got to see Mt. Cook again, this time without a single cloud in the sky.

Very late, Charlie the camper limped into our campsite in Punakaiki, we parked up, converted the van to its sleeping arrangement and promptly all crashed into slumber out of sheer exhaustion and relief to have finally made it.

The next morning, somewhat jaded, we made our way to the location of the course, down a winding road in the middle of nowhere, to an old house with lots of people gathered outside suiting up in lumberjack shirts and goggles. We quickly got stuck in, introducing ourselves and similarly attiring. The course was run by a fairly eccentric (my type of people!), lovely and very welcoming old couple: Steven and Robyn.

After a short safety briefing, we jumped straight into forging the soft steel into carbon steel, a much harder-wearing material. I was on Bean8 duty: I held the steel in the furnace for him and then, once red hot, he bashed it with a hammer to strengthen and shape the metal – an ideal activity for an enthusiastic 8-year-old! He bashed harder on one edge to create the shape of the blade. This was repeated three times before we submerged it into cold water to harden the metal.

Next, using a hacksaw, he cut the knife to size, and it was onto the belt sanders to thin and smooth the metal blade. As the sparks flew off in all directions and his little fingers came ominously close to the rotating belt which was having no problem cutting through the metal, my heart was doing a serious number of somersaults inside my chest. Whilst I know that doing things for themselves and taking risks is an incredibly important part of children’s learning, it doesn’t mean I find it easy. By nature, I’m overprotective and very conscious of pretty much every potential safety issue, but I’m trying hard to get better at this by relaxing, taking a step back and letting them be more independent (as much as I can!). In this environment, with so many things that could possibly have gone wrong, my “safety sensors” were in overdrive, but with a silent prayer to Him upstairs, I managed to relax, focus and dare I say even love the process, despite the dangers it held. It helped, to be honest, that the owners, Steven and Robyn, were at the same time both relaxed and keen to encourage a sense of give it a go, whilst also being strict and sensible with the more dangerous aspects of the knife build. It felt very reassuring.

The next step in the process was to glue two pieces of brass in position on the blade (to be the start of the handle), drill two holes in them and then finally hammer in two pin fastenings to hold them in place. Clearly Bean8 managed to momentarily superglue his fingers together (we were never going to come out of this completely unscathed), but fortunately he managed to pull them apart quickly enough for it not to be an issue. Then it was time for the next tool – the trusty jigsaw – to cut out the two pieces of wood to make the rest of the handle. Bean8 did this completely on his own, with his tongue hanging out in serious concentration! He did a brilliant job. Despite what I’ve said above, I was feeling extremely grateful that they were allowing him to use all these tools. He was having the best day of his life!

After gluing the wooden handles into position and hammering in the supporting pins, it was time for the resin filler to hole up all the gaps between the wooden and brass pieces and the blade. The resin was a carcinogenic substance, so we decided this was a step too far for the kids and instead completed this element for them. Once dried, Steven smoothed down the resin for us whilst we got stuck into toasted sarnies for lunch and a chance to chat to our fellow students. There was a good mix of different countries in the group with Aussies, Americans, Germans, French, Dutch, South Africans, as well as us Brits. They were all lovely, friendly and chatty people which made for an interesting and supportive group. The kids chatted to various people as they lunched – I love that they get to socialise with a whole variety of different people, nationalities and age groups, rather than just with children of their own age. Bean9 took a particular liking to the French lady who took her off to feed the horses. Bean8 preferred challenging the men in the group to a game of quoits or an axe throwing competition (yes, yet more potential dangers!).

Robyn then called us over for a go on their awesome, enormous swing, which required three adults to pull a rope backwards in order to set it going. Bean9, my little adrenaline junky, went first, squealing with delight as we let her go and she swung down and out towards the beautiful vista of the Pacific Ocean. Bean8 was quick to jump on next, followed by the rest of us, until we’d all had at least two attempts and it was time to get back to work.

The first task in the afternoon was to shape the blade to your liking. Some of the group wanted more intricate shapes along the top or bottom of their blades, but both Beans decided they were happy with the shapes of their knives and opted to leave them as they were (which apparently makes for a more sturdy knife and, to be honest, I was a little worried about them accidentally knocking off the end of the blade, so I was pretty relieved with their decision). Next up, it was back to the belter sanders to further thin and smooth them, after which Steven started to sharpen their edges. This process was repeated three times.

The following few steps were then completed sat together in the sunshine on their patio. Together we sanded the knives with first one grade of sandpaper and then other, for quite a while, with the sun beating down on our backs. Then we polished them until they shone. At this point, Bean8 managed to cut himself – it was always going to happen! – but luckily it was only a small scratch, so I patched him up and we carried on.

Our final step was to paint the handle with a protective wood polish and Steven sharpened the blades one last time. Then it was time for a beer/glass of homemade champagne for us (which was seriously good!) and water/biscuits for the kids whilst Steven told us how to care for our knives. One last group photo and we were done for the day, now the proud owners of two amazing knives and a new-found appreciation of just how much work goes into making one! The Beans were thrilled. It had been a wonderful day and they talked incessantly about their experience all the way back to the campsite. The 11.5-hour drive had been worth it!


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